Saturday, November 7, 2009

A tale of three churches

What happens to a church when it focuses on its own traditions and institutional heft to a point where it neglects ministry? Well, lately I've seen the results in three assemblies that I've been a part of -- two no longer exist and the other has been put "on the shelf," so to speak.

My childhood church maintained excellent theology -- and to this day I'm grateful for that -- but did virtually nothing else. It didn't evangelize or reach out to its neighbors; it was seemingly context to let the world go by.

Two-and-a-half years ago it suffered the loss of its building to fire and eventually merged with another church, which actually was on fire (no pun intended) for God. But because this church wasn't quite as conservative theologically about two dozen people left, some trying to start a new church in the old denomination. Interestingly enough, when I interviewed the pastor (who had been in the old church) for a story, he said he noticed that "we had become simple and inner-directed."

Which I knew was true.

Earlier this week I went to the viewing for a fellow musician who had fallen victim to cancer, and that took place in the building of the church whose high school youth group I belonged to (and where I actually became a Christian). But even then the church, which I rarely attended on Sundays, was in a transition period, especially because the neighborhood had become poorer and more African-American, which was resisted. For that and other reasons, attendance began to slip, finally closing for good three years ago. (Another church has it now.)

The church I went to as a young adult, by contrast, still exists. It always focused proudly on its traditions -- classic hymns and choir anthems, the best organist and preaching etc. But by the time I left in 1998, it had lost its spiritual discernment. Some powerful members actually started a whispering campaign against the pastor, which divided the congregation and caused a major exodus -- which hit the newspapers.

Two fairly recent incidents showed me that the church hasn't repented. Even after I left I occasionally visited the Tuesday morning prayer group, and last year one of the women who had opposed the previous pastor was still breathing fire 10 years later about the newspaper story. I have not been back since. Earlier this year I ran into another former congregant who excitedly said, after a new pastor had been installed, "We got our church back!"

But at what expense?

I emailed a pastor who in 1999 was looking for a new challenge in ministry that "the day of church culture is over." A church exists to do the work of God, which it can't do when it focuses inward. An assembly must adapt to the times and move with the Spirit, and if it doesn't He will either take or push it out.

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